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India’s number of poor larger than thought

In April this year, the Indian government revised its own estimates for the number of its citizens living below the poverty line. Previously official numbers for the poor had been based on calorie intake, but a change in calculations was introduced because of the sharp rise in food prices. Recalculating the figure based on the earnings ability of a family to afford one meal a day to meet minimum nutritional needs, the Indian government says that 40% of its population is now eligible for subsidised food supplies. This puts the number of poor at over 370 million in India, 100 million more than previous estimates.

There are varying ways to estimate poverty. Since 1990, the World Bank has tracked poverty based on income and with this measure, reckons that a quarter of the developing world relies on less than 1.25 dollars a day. While income helps to give an idea how much of the population is poor, it cannot provide the full picture.

In a recent study of India, the Oxford Poverty and Human Development Initiative (OPHI), an economic research centre, showed that despite the country registering strong economic growth and falling poverty rates by income in the last decade, 46% of children under three were malnourished in 2005-2006, only a one per cent decline from the 47% registered in 1998-1999. This indication about the extent of India’s poverty, agrees with a similar study by UNICEF. In its report ‘Improving Child and Maternal Nutrition’, published at the end of 2009, UNICEF found that most of the world’s malnourished children (under five) were to be found in South Asian countries, where India had the third highest rate of malnourishment, with 48% of its under five population or 61 million children lacking proper nutrition.

OPHI’s specific mission is to help tackle poverty by improving the measurement and data available on the world’s poor. With UN backing, OPHI has developed a new measurement for poverty called the ‘Multidimensional Poverty Index’ (MPI). This index measures a number of factors where poor people are lacking– for example, access to education or healthcare – and produces statistics based on a whole range of deprivations at a household level. So to take the analogy of one expert in social development, instead of basing the health of a nation on one measurement, as a doctor might look only at blood pressure for example, the index looks at a whole number of tests which indicate well-being. The new MPI will be used by the UN in its Development Programme and will feature in its annual Human Development Report (published in October).

Using the MPI method, OPHI calculates that the number of India’s poor is even higher than the recent government statistics, standing at 421 million in the Indian states of Bihar, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh, Orissa, Rajasthan, UP and West Bengal. This means that in these eight states of India, there are more poor people than in the 26 poorest countries of Africa combined.

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